Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency
by Barnabas Calder
Pelican Books, October 2021

Hardcover | 5-1/2 x 8-3/4 inches | 576 pages | English | ISBN: 9780241396735 | £20.00


The story of architecture is the story of humanity. The buildings we live in, from the humblest pre-historic huts to today's skyscrapers, reveal our priorities and ambitions, our family structures and power structures. And to an extent never explored until now, architecture has been shaped in every era by our access to energy, from fire to farming to fossil fuels.

In this ground-breaking history of world architecture, Barnabas Calder takes us on a dazzling tour of some of the most astonishing buildings of the past fifteen thousand years, from Uruk, via Ancient Rome and Victorian Liverpool, to China's booming megacities. He reveals how every building - from the Parthenon to the Great Mosque of Damascus to a typical Georgian house - was influenced by the energy available to its architects, and why this matters.

Today architecture consumes so much energy that 40% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the construction and running of buildings. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change then now, more than ever, we need beautiful but also intelligent architecture, and to retrofit - not demolish - the buildings we already have.

Barnabas Calder is a historian of architecture and Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, specializing in the relationship between architecture and energy throughout human history. He also works on British architecture since 1945, and is the author of Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism.


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Architects have created some pretty memorable aphorisms while also, on occasion, finding ways to manipulate those same phrases into counterarguments. Take "Less is more," the succinct phrase attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that captured the essence of modernism. It was used some decades later by Robert Venturi, who turned it upside down and wrote, "Less is a bore" in reply to the glut of stripped-down modern architecture he disliked. Then came Bjarke Ingels, who further morphed those earlier phrases into Yes Is More, the name of the 2009 monograph on his firm, BIG. Equally famous to Mies's aphorism is "Form follows function," a slight simplification of the phrase "form ever follows function" from Louis Sullivan's essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." This maxim served to determine the appearance of buildings, especially tall buildings, but in later years the phrase was modified to express different priorities, as in Sylvia Lavin's Form Follows Libido, a book on Richard Neutra and psychoanalysis, and Carol Willis's history of skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, Form Follows Finance.

Along these lines, I found the title of chapter 9, "Form Follows Fuel," in Barnabas Calder's Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency irresistible and decided to jump into the book there.* The phrase clearly expresses that the form of a building has less to do with the function of the spaces behind it, aesthetics and the psychology of architects, or the money paying for it, than it does with the energy that makes the widespread manufacture of certain materials possible, that brings those materials to the construction site, and that powers the building once it's complete. This much is hinted at in the subtitle to the book; an architecture book interested in the "climate emergency" is certainly going to spend less time discussing geometry and proportion than oil extraction, embodied energy, and the like. "Form Follows Fuel" looks at industry and construction in the United States from 1850 to 1920. Like other chapters that start with discussions of energy and technology before presenting some important buildings, chapter 9 has a narrow focus in terms of energy sources and built precedents: coal and the Woolworth Building.

The Woolworth Building could be analyzed in any number of facets: the neo-Gothic style of the tower designed by Cass Gilbert; the skyscraper's 791-foot apex, which made it the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1913 until it was displaced by 40 Wall Street in 1930; or the client, Frank W. Woolworth, who paid for the building in cash after making a fortune on his five-and-dime stores. Calder sees the building as the outcome of "decades of technical, industrial and organizational innovations" that came together in the early 1910s, making the building a record breaker in more than just height. For example, it was the first job site to use electrical-powered rising scaffolding and hoists that were powerful enough to raise twelve-tonne members at over 300 meters per minute. And the speed of the riveted steelwork set records, with 1,046 tonnes erected in six consecutive eight-hour days. What enabled such firsts? "The boilers powering the fast hoists," Calder explains, "got through twenty tonnes of coal every twenty-four hours." Thankfully, Calder's history book is not merely lists of facts like these, but when they are presented they serve to explain how a building's importance should be linked to the energy that produced it, not just the formal and aesthetic merits on display in other histories.

The book is comprehensive in that it tells the history of architecture and buildings from more than 10,000 years ago until the present day. Its twelve chapters are split into two parts of six chapters each, with the Industrial Revolution being the dividing line. The combination of the book being published by Penguin/Pelican (it fits nicely into the lineage of architecture books bearing the Pelican imprint), its suitability for architectural history classes in the UK, and Calder's expertise in postwar British architecture means the second half of the book is heavy on architecture in the UK, though the "Form Follows Fuel" chapter signals that there are still plenty of buildings found in other parts of the world. But the Industrial Revolution started in Britain after all, and the United States did the most last century to turn cheap energy into bigger and taller buildings, so an emphasis on Western architecture — something acknowledged by Calder in the book — is understandable. 

Knitting together the ambitious book's millennia of buildings and energy are illustrations, by Ginger Head Design, that depict structures across time, all at the same scale. As is visible in the spreads below, these start with the Pyramids in Egypt and include important buildings as discussed by Calder, such as the Woolworth Building and the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin (Giacomo Matté-Trucco, 1923); the latter, the author attests, "illustrated for Le Corbusier how revolutionary concrete and steel could be for cities." The last illustration in the book is the last building discussed by Calder and the smallest illustration of the bunch, at less than an inch wide and just a 1/4-inch tall: the award-winning Cork House, completed in Eton, UK, in 2019. Made from super-insulated, super-green expanded cork and heated by renewable fuel, the project "goes to impressive lengths to minimize energy consumption," Calder contends, and is further commended for the ability of its components to be reused rather than recycled at the end of the house's life. It offers lessons for sustainable architecture now and in the future, but not at a scale on par with the environmental crises humanity is facing. If the book offers anything valuable moving forward, doing it through its continuous emphasis on energy sources and technology, it's that the energy used to manufacture and operate buildings needs to shift to renewables — at a massive scale and as fast as is humanly possible.

*Once upon a time I used to read books cover to cover, but these days I find the chapter most appealing to me, start there, and then jump around, reading as much of the book as I can in the short time I have available to craft these commentaries.